What types of indignities and humiliations do Americans consider as human rights abuses? Overcrowding? Overzealous incarceration? Lack of medical care? Or do we have to have a case of prison officials pulling out someone’s fingernails before Americans protest this gulag in our midst? Below is an article Robin wrote about her last days in prison.
Well, you goaded me into it. Your comment in the Journalism class at the Danbury Prison Camp got me thinking. For me, or other inmates, to talk about prison conditions without experiencing the real prison down the hill – and the disciplinary unit or SHU (Security Housing Unit) that is a part of it – would be to gloss over the dire reality of prison conditions in America. So, two days before I am to be released, I implement my plan.
I sit down in the small TV room at the Camp at 9:30 am and turn on the television. The Correctional Officer (C.O.) comes in and tells me that TV is off limits in the morning hours and turns it off. She leaves, and I turn it back on. The show is the Today Show: a woman is explaining to the anchor what face lotions should be used by women 20 to 40 years old, and what other lotions used from 40 to 60. I’m not able to find out what face creams should be used for women after 60 because the C.O. returns, deeply offended.
"Did you turn the TV on?"
She snaps it off and disconnects the cable. "Give me your ID, and
go to your room".
About 20 minutes later I am called to report to the C.O.’s office.
The Camp’s lieutenant, 6 feet tall, looks down on me. "You have
disobeyed my officer!"
"Why? Do you want to go to the SHU?"
Since I couldn’t say yes, I said "Well, since I work hard in Food Service, I thought during our few moments off
"You thought?.. You’re not here to think! I’m ordering you to scrub the floor of the TV room for 45 minutes. Do you have any good time?"
"When are you leaving?"
"Friday: day after tomorrow."
Her stern look does not waver, but she realizes at that moment that she does not have the power to sink her claws into my flesh as deeply as she wished. "Put on your uniform and report to food service. You’re late."
I go to my room and sit on my bed.
Finally the assistant warden comes to get me. They have had enough of my non-cooperation. She escorts me down to the SHU in silence. She hands me over to Mr. DeMarco, a tall man with a shaved head, his arms covered with tattoos. We go thru several doors and little rooms into the large inner courtyard of the medium security FCI (Federal Correctional Institution). It is like a college campus, with nice lawns and plantings, but everyone is wearing khaki. We go into another door and wait, and at that point he handcuffs me, which seems somewhat redundant, security wise.
Finally we are in the SHU. Women at the Camp have described it to me, but I haven’t realized that all the cells – three stories with 13 cells on each story – face the same direction, with balconies on the upper two floors and a wide space on the ground floor allowing officers to shout up to inmates above. Fans slowly rotate in this common space. The only natural light filters in through white opaque windows facing east. A few of them are open to let in the fresh air.
Looking into each cell as I am led to my own little home, I see that all the women are wearing bright orange clothing, sitting on orange sheets, and provided with an orange curtain to pull to protect private functions from public view. Most are lounging on the beds. Others are seated on the floor on a thin blue mattress. Women in the SHU are immobilized in their cells for 23 hours a day. They eat, sleep and poop there. For one hour they are taken out to a small wire mesh cage for ‘exercise’, which amounts mainly to standing around. I am put in a cell with Ruth and Michelle, two newcomers who have ‘self-reported’ to begin their sentences but are not able to go up to the Camp because their PSI (Pre-Sentencing Investigation) papers had not yet arrived. Ruth has been in the SHU 3 ½ weeks; Michelle for over a week. Because Michelle has not been given a 9 digit ‘pac’ number she can’t make phone calls.
She has written her husband to let him know where she is, but she is upset that she can’t speak to him. Luckily she and Ruth have become good friends during their enforced time together.
The cell is roughly 8 feet by 6 feet. Half of it lengthwise is filled with a double decker bunk. As I am number three in the cell, my mattress occupies the remaining floor space; or rather it shares it with the toilet and sink which are at the wall opposite the cell door. Most cells during the time I am there have three occupants. With 39 cells, the SHU was build to hold 78 women, but currently incarcerates112. It functions as the disciplinary unit for both the Camp (210 inmates), where I served my three months, and the medium security prison housing 1200 inmates. But this prison within a prison is also used to store women like Ruth and Michelle who have committed no infraction of the rules but whose papers had not caught up with them. For them it is a severe shock to be stuck in 23 hour-a-day lockdown, and subjected to incessant and high volume shouts, orders and ribald dialogue between the inmates, and the inmates and guards, going on around them day and night.
After an hour or so, I am moved to a cell on the first floor, which Ishare with a woman I know from the Camp, Cindy Soloman, and where I have the lower bunk. A white woman in her thirties with a year and a day sentence for mail fraud, Cindy is deeply anxious about her reasons for being stuck in the SHU. She had been following the rules at the Camp. She was at her job in the garage when an officer called her name and told her to follow him. She was put in the SHU without being given a reason. She has been there 10 days.
When the deputy warden of the Camp visited the SHU, Cindy called out to her and asked her why she was there. Ms. Chapa said ‘You ask yourself why you are there. What have you done that would cause you to be put in here?" Cindy retorted that she had been spending night and day trying to figure out what she could have done wrong. Ms. Chapa, moved on, saying that her case was under security investigation.
Women in the Camp had assured me that the authorities had to have a written reason to send an inmate to the SHU. During the time I was at the camp, women had been sent down for fighting, making ‘hootch’, or wearing a ring in a piercing other than in one’s ear.
I yell at the passing clinical officer, "This is like Guantanamo! You have deprived this woman of her right to Habeas Corpus! You need to tell her why she is being punished and incarcerated here!" He laughs and taunts me, and walks on.
My last image on leaving the cell at 8 am, Friday, July 7, is of Cindy seated on the upper bunk, eyes swollen, reminding me to phone her sister when I get out and tell her that because she was still in the SHU, the only visiting day that her sister could bring her two daughters is Sunday.
These are the conditions in the federal prison in Danbury Connecticut, a state that happens to have the highest number of millionaires per capital of any state in the union. Are the prosperous and well educated citizens of Connecticut aware that these human rights violations of overcrowding and overzealous incarceration are happening in their midst?